Social change after the plague: the occult

In the world after the plague, the occult had a much larger role. It isn’t hard to argue that pagan magic had never entirely stopped when Europe became officially Christian; but there is also no question that “black” magic, power unrelated to the holy power of the saints, was not in fashion.

After the massive death toll of the plague, people were much more aware of death and the afterlife. Art depicted death as gory. Although good-looking, clothed stone effigies still decorated aristocratic tombs, there was another trend for gory, worm-eaten, raggedy effigies. “Death” in art was often a skeleton, sometimes in a “Grim Reaper” black robe and sometimes naked. Death often had shreds of rotting flesh still attached to his bones, but he grinned merrily.

Some people sought to contact the spirits of the departed through seances. As their interest turned toward witches, those people with power to call up the dead, they also began to focus on other aspects of witchcraft. Perhaps the new loose morality played into things, too. Many more girls had babies out of wedlock now, and many of these were bitter about the men who had left them. People supposed that some of them put magic curses on the men, especially to shrink or remove their penises.

In past times, if they thought about magic, they envisioned men who had studied theology at university using their arcane knowledge to write and read books about spells. The new science of astrology, emerging like the astrolabe from Arabic texts, also played into the idea. Magicians used the power of the stars and names of demons to seek occult power.

But now, in the post-plague period, they envisioned women who used less exalted forms of magic to take personal and petty revenge. The magic had more in common with old pagan rites and herbal lore, less in common with university books and astrology.

It’s in this late medieval period that we begin to get records of church inquisitions about witches. Most of the medieval material on witches comes from the Cathar Inquisition; the southern French region had been conquered militarily and now was subject to boards of priests asking questions to find out if the heretical religion had really been stamped out. Many of the Cathar-region peasants reported that various neighbors were witches.

It was a sin, but not a crime, to be a witch. Witches were told to do penance for their sins. But it was a crime to harm someone whether by weapons or witchcraft, so if it could be “proven” that real harm had happened, a witch might be punished with the same punishment that a murderer would get: death. It wasn’t until the Renaissance time, with the Catholic church cracking down on heretical Reformers, that witchcraft trials became spectacles. The early victims of burning were not witches, after all, but preachers and Bible translators. A lot of what we think of as medieval about witches really came from the harsher Renaissance/Reformation times.

This entry was posted in Black Death, Women and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply